Parents who have children in Harford County’s 53 public schools should feel confident they’re safe throughout the day, from the simple dangers to the more complex, the school system’s director of safety and security said.
“We want parents to know the physical mechanisms are in working order. When we need a window to lock, the window locks, when we need to lock a door, the door locks,” Donoven Brooks, who has been with Harford County Public Schools for about 18 months, said.
“The initial processes and procedures that go a step further for safety, those mechanisms work. And if we find a deficiency for some reason, then it’s not an ‘A-ha’ moment, it’s an opportunity to address and correct it immediately.”
Renee DeBiase, president of the Harford County Council of PTAs, said she hasn’t heard concerns about safety from parents.
“I haven’t heard from parents they’re not comfortable sending their kids to school,” DiBiase said.
Between the end of 2018 and June, the school system conducted safety evaluations at each of the county’s schools, as required by the Maryland Safe to Learn Act of 2018, which focused on physical safety as well as mental health aspects of safety.
For safety and security reasons, the school system would not release the full reports. Brooks would not comment on safety and security at any specific school but discussed the issue in general.
Harford’s school evaluations were done in collaboration with school system employees and local law enforcement agencies — the Harford County Sheriff’s Office and Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace police departments —depending on which jurisdictions the schools are located, Brooks said.
“The state wanted us to conduct evaluations to see where we might be able to make adjustments in whatever was found or see if none were needed at all,” he said.
It gave the district an opportunity to look at each school individually and do an overall assessment of the safety of the buildings.
The evaluations didn’t just look at safety and security from the perspective of intentional harm, Brooks said, it considered everything; a cap missing from a fencepost or an uneven sidewalk joint — both are safety issues, he said.
“What we found is what we are doing is pretty much on track,” Brooks, who was with Baltimore City School Police for 21 years, said. “What we found is that were were in really good shape.”
That’s because staff has stayed on top of security concerns when they’ve come up and addressed them immediately, Brooks said.
“It doesn’t take an evaluation for us to realize a camera was out," he said.
“We take care of that stuff. People don’t call with an issue, we say we’ll take care of it and then nothing. We have really good facility teams, IT teams and very safety and security minded administrators. They’re not going to let stuff go lacking in their buildings and it not be addressed.”
It boils down to simple communication, which is fluid throughout the county and happens seamlessly, Brooks said.
It’s because everybody understands the impact of safety and security. The custodian understands the impact on the cafeteria manager, the cafeteria manager understands the impact to the teacher bringing in students and on up, he said.
“We don’t do stuff in a bubble. On the most basic level, we do a lot of things well because of communication,” Brooks said.
Another reason the schools are in good shape is because the system is constantly looking at safety and security and what could and should be done differently.
“If you’re not looking at safety and security constantly, the simple fixes become major stuff,” Brooks said.
Harford has a safety and security impact team, a cross-section of school system employees that meets once a month to discuss the impact safety has on the schools. It also provides an opportunity to discuss what might be down the road or how another jurisdiction deals with safety and security, whether on a routine basis or in response to an incident.
“Every time these things happen, new ideas and new things emerge from that people never discussed before. We look at that stuff,” Brooks said. “Not everything is going to fit. But there are basic things you can add to what you do that can help your folks stay in that safety and security mindset.”
Any time there’s an incident involving a school, it puts people on edge, DeBiase said.
“I feel comfortable sending my kids to school, knowing that there is potential for unforeseen circumstances to occur,” she said. “It’s kind of out of my control and I recognize that. I put my faith in the school system and I tell my children to trust what their teachers say.”
The school system also has a partnership with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office and the municipal law enforcement agencies in Harford, which provide school resource officers.
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“We enjoy a collaborative working relationship to ensure that all Harford County Public Schools students have a safe environment in which to learn,” Cristie Hopkins, director of media relations for the Sheriff’s Office, said. “That partnership includes information sharing on boards and committees, assistance of specialized units, providing law enforcement presence at school events, training together and providing general support, as needed.”